You may recall a year ago I wrote about The News Forum, a low-budget Canadian TV channel offered to Bell TV subscribers that broadcast news headlines and a lot of political talk with a clear conservative bent, even being hosted by former conservative politicians like Tony Clement, Danielle Smith and Tanya Granic Allen.
This month, the CRTC published an application by The News Forum for a national news broadcasting licence, similar to that held by CBC News Network and CTV News Channel.
Previously, The News Forum operated as a licence-exempt service, which allowed it to be on TV distribution systems without a licence provided it remain below 200,000 subscribers. With the application, it confirms it has passed that threshold, even though it is only distributed through Bell TV, Telus, SaskTel and Access Communications.
Thanks to a lobbying campaign by the defunct Sun News Network, the CRTC has given some special privileges to licensed national news services, the main one being that licensed TV distributors throughout the country must offer the channel to their subscribers. In exchange, the service has to meet some standards:
- Programming consisting of “mainstream national news and information” with news, analysis, interpretation, documentary, reporting and actualities representing at least 95% of programming.
- “Updated news reports every 120 minutes”
- “At least 16 hours per day of original programming, seven days a week, averaged over the broadcast year.” (Original meaning created by the licensee, but these can include repeats)
- At least 90% Canadian programming
- No more than 12 minutes of advertising per hour
- “Operate a live broadcast facility and maintain news bureaus in at least three regions other than in that of the live broadcast facility”
- “have the ability to report on international news and events from a Canadian perspective”
- Comply with the journalistic codes of ethics administered by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, including the RTDNA Code of Ethics
Plus more standard conditions of licence like closed captioning.
Is this really news?
In responding to The News Forum’s application, the CRTC asked several questions about whether it complies with these requirements. TNF says it has a 4,000 square foot live production studio in St. Catharines, Ont., and “a growing pool of journalists in Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Montreal and Halifax” (it’s not clear who these people are).
The application makes clear, however, that TNF gets most of its journalism from The Canadian Press, a wire service. One document explaining its newsgathering references CP 14 times. The end result is a list of headlines or briefs read out by an anchor on the newscast-like show Forum Daily.
Otherwise, the plan appears to be not so much to create journalism but to copy it. This is how they explain how they’ll use content from print media, for example:
As a broadcaster, print journalism is a key partner in our mission to build, strengthen, safeguard, and promote a healthy and fair Canadian society, and support Canadian journalism. From our pool of journalists, and print media relationships, when a story is selected for broadcast, the proper attribution is maintained, and the journalist is considered for an interview on the subject matter.
It’s not clear if those “relationships” mean they will ask for permission or compensate print journalism outlets for using their stories or just attribute the news to them and offer interview exposure to the journalist as compensation.
The application also suggests liberal use of press releases:
Story releases are sent to The News Forum from our journalist pool on a daily basis. These can be unpacked with experts in their respective fields in interviews. Additional press releases are either sent to the network or found by staff.
Of course, stealing scoops from print media and getting ideas from press releases is hardly new for journalism outlets. But it’s a bit concerning that The News Forum does not appear to have any actual on-air reporters, or at least none that I’ve seen anyway.
The group does plan to expand with its new licence, though, moving beyond the bureaus mentioned above and expanding regional programming.
Finally, The News Forum is in the process of developing regional production units who will submit weekly half hour program reports on a regional basis. We have started in the Province of Alberta with the Alberta weekly. This is a news report that is generated and produced locally. We are in the process of establishing similar weekly reports from multiple Provinces. Two additional weekly reports are in development and will be in place at the time of licensing, with facilities in all regions arranged during a first licence term.
Asked about offering international news from a Canadian perspective, TNF once again cites its subscription to The Canadian Press, then talks about a bunch of other media, including international media like the BBC or DW, that it will use as “important resources for interviews.”
TNF does not appear to have any journalists working outside Canada, which means the international reporting from a Canadian perspective will be mainly in the form of interviews on its talk shows.
Complying with some of the other requirements won’t be hard. The schedule is 100% original, with no syndicated or imported programming. And it’s all news-talk.
But on the common sense scale, a channel with no apparent journalists, whose newscasts are filled with still images and stock footage because they don’t have cameras on the ground, and which cites The Canadian Press as a main source of news coverage, certainly doesn’t seem as serious a source of news as CBC, CTV, LCN or even Sun News Network.
It’ll be up to the CRTC to determine if it passes the test. If not, they could choose to still grant it a licence, but not with the regulatory perks of an official national news service.
Is it really Canadian-owned?
Another issue with The News Forum is ownership. TNF is mainly owned by TV producer Tore Stautland, who also acts as CEO.
Or maybe not.
In ownership documents filed with the commission, The News Forum lists 77.75% of equity in the company as being held by unnamed “corporate” and “individual” shareholders, who are not named in the abridged public version of the document. They insist these shareholders are Canadian.
Stautland himself, though, is not. He’s Norwegian, though he has lived in Canada since 1989 and says he has applied for Canadian citizenship. To get around a requirement that Canadian broadcasting licences go to Canadians, Stautland and his wife Julie, who together have the remaining 22.25% equity in The News Forum, have set up a voting trust, giving Douglas McKenzie administrative power over the company, and making director Lorna Dueck the CEO instead of Stautland. The trust agreement ends when Stautland gets his citizenship or The News Forum loses or gives up its licence, whichever comes first.
Stautland did not respond to a request for an interview for this story. But in an interview last year with Broadcast Dialogue magazine, he was asked repeatedly about ownership and sources of funding, and described investors as “like-minded”, “anonymous donors” and “friends.”
He generally described The News Forum as being about respectful dialogue in which you can disagree with someone without hating them. From what I’ve seen of TNF, it does seem to be much calmer than Sun News was, with more discussion and much less sarcastic ranting, but calling this centrist would be stretching things unless they add more left-wing personalities.
The CRTC will hold a pro forma hearing Dec. 6 to consider the application from The News Forum. No presentations are planned, unless the commission is convinced of the need for them by the interventions submitted. The commission is accepting comments from the public until Nov. 4, which can be submitted here. Note that all information submitted, including contact information, becomes part of the public record.